Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Kids these days
What’s a parent to do?
Implicit in every work of history is a theory of human nature. We read old letters and diaries and learn what our subjects said; from these we infer what they thought and why they acted as they did. Yet making this inferential leap requires an understanding of what the words meant. In particular, did the words mean the same thing to the person writing them as they do to the historian reading them years or decades or centuries later? I know how I would feel if I wrote words Benjamin Franklin put down in 1750. But did Franklin feel the same way?
The rule I’ve devised for answering such questions is this: The closer the historical subject is to the present, the more confidence I have in drawing inferences. The farther into the past I go, the more cautious I am in conjecturing.
Yet still I conjecture.
And so it is gratifying to discover evidence that some aspects of human nature seem not to have changed in thousands of years.
Parents today lament that their children don’t appreciate what they’ve been given. The kids complain that their parents have no clue what young people require.
Evidently it has always been so. At least it was in the case of the following message, written on a clay tablet in the Akkadian language of ancient Babylonia, and unearthed millennia later.
Your son Adad-abum sends the following message: May the gods Samas and Wer keep you forever in good health.
I have never before written to you for something precious I wanted. But if you want to be like a father to me, get me a fine string full of beads, to be worn around the head. Seal it with your seal and give it to the carrier of this tablet so that he can bring it to me. If you have none at hand, dig it out of the ground wherever such objects are found and send it to me. I want it very much; do not withhold it from me. In this I will see whether you love me as a real father does.
Of course, establish its price for me, write it down, and send me the tablet. The young man who is coming to you must not see the string of beads. Seal it in a package and give it to him. He must not see the string, the one to be worn around the head, which you are sending.
It should be full of beads and should be beautiful. If I see it and dislike it, I shall send it back.
Also send the cloak, of which I spoke to you.
No word if the beads arrived, or if they made Abad the envy of his friends.
(Letter from Letters from Mesopotamia, translated and edited by A. Leo Oppenheim.)